by Rhys Thomas
Well here we are, then. Back in Baku with the cheap beer and the good times, staring at the pitch where a quarter final featuring Wales is about to be played. No biggie. Nothing major at all. Not at all. Nope. I’m fine. I’m reporting this one from my head by the way, present tense. I seem to be able to as I don’t feel like I am currently on the planet. Not since we sat down. I feel like I’m in liminal space, watching reality unfold but not feeling grounded within your universe. I am inside a vacuum. Mercifully Dai made us hot dogs at the airbnb before we arrived but it has not settled my stomach.
I feel it constrict like a black hole as the Norwegian players come out, one by one, tall strapping, athletic lads. The stadium is a sea of red and it sweeps against the vivid green grass, and I see myself swaying. I begin to feel nauseous and then I see a creature land on the pitch. A sonic boom whistles into the audience and the seats begin to rumble. Haaland. It says. The alien’s name must be Haaland. And these must be his men around him.
My stomach seems to spill some gold yeast-smelling liquid and it directs my line of vision at the star in his cradle. Taller than the others but not the alien yellow daffodil. ‘Wayne’, I hear the curtains of the white rectangular cradle around him whisper. I see a sphere of hopes and dreams crashing toward him. I can feel beads of sweat corroding my nerves. He stops them from shattering. The acid on my skin turns to cool silk. I think the alien must have something to do with it all. Haaland the alien is lashing at the grass, whose blades are crying limply. I can smell him. He smells of warm oil. And then there is another rumble.
I am barged by a gnome that looks like Dai. He is passing me another gold yeast lake in a tall vase. I decide to eat it and I hear the gnome say hail. I don’t know what to hail. I see no hail. He says it again: Bale. OH, BALE. Suddenly I turn. There is a dragon in front of me. It is flying, all elegance and warmth, holding the ball of hopes and dreams under its wings, on the wing. It swooshes back and the alien is darting towards him from behind. I am scared for this ball. I don’t understand why, but I am. It seems to sing a choral hymn each time the dragon has it. The alien misses. The dragon leans back and blasts a mound of fire into the black hole on the other side of the land to Wayne’s stable. It shrinks. I am shaken by the gnome.
It is here that I realise there’s something definitely incorrect about the way I have been observing the game. I have not been trying to use metaphors. “I think I am hallucinating.” I say, a bit exasperated. Dai laughs at me and pats his stomach. “Shrooms on the sausage, weren’t there”.
The fucker. He’s put some magic mushrooms on my hot dog, hasn’t he. The bastard. “It’s only a few, they should be calming down by now. Look I’m sorry pal, I thought you’d eat the hot dog last night like we did, not right outside the stadium. I did say they were a birthday treat”.
It was my birthday yesterday. But now I have no fucking idea what is going on and I’m supposed to be discretely reporting on this for the paper. Giggs is still cross with me. The TV says WAL 1 - 0 NOR. There are 45+1 minutes on the clock. Bale scored at 38 minutes.
“HAS ANYONE GOT A PROGRAMME WITH THEM?!” I howl. Fortunately some bloke with a Caernarfon Town Football Club T-Shirt turns around and throws one at me. “Give it back at the end of the game mind!” I promise to.
Right the teams… the teams… I can see the Welsh boys and it is slightly changed from the programme. Mepham is on instead of Ampadu. Other than that, it’s the most sensible team he’s picked. A true Welsh XI elite. And we’re fucking winning. Somehow. Dai isn’t sure either. He says it has been like War of the Worlds. Back and forth. Shots fired everywhere. Haaland, Bale Ramsey, James, Ødegaard, Wilson, all machines. Having performances beyond anything humanly possible. One of the best games he’s ever dreamt of.
Dai has had a few pints, but having had a sneak on Twitter, it seems this really has been a game for the ages. And I’ve spent half of it on another planet. The grass is still throbbing in front of me. My pint of Xirdalan is a Magic 8 Ball and it simply says: “Reply hazy, try again.” I drink.
It says: “As I see it, yes.” I call it a twat for telling me the fucking obvious in these strange and unprecedented times. Football changes on a dime, I hiss.
The Norwegian team is very strong. The possession is 51-49, territory is 46-54. But, Haaland has missed a penalty. And apparently Mepham should’ve been sent off for the slide tackle on the edge of (but apparently inside) the box. The videos suggest it was violent. An unapologetically desperate two footed slice at the legs of mighty Haaland. Who, it has to be said, was limping as he ran to strike the ball toward the left post, but not far enough to the side of Hennessy’s albatross-like wing-span. Saviour.
I find a bottle of water under the seat and chug it. I don’t think it’s mine as it’s warm and the label has bleached in the sun, which isn’t even facing us. The players come back out and though they look like warped Pro Evolution Soccer teams in the 32 degree heat. Like Celtic England v West Scandinavia, it isn’t quite right. But I think it’ll clear up.
The whistle is a tonic and I am seeming to navigate the ebbs and flows of an energetic and blustery game. Now, the singing around me feels like a hug lifting me slightly off my chair. There is tangible excitement as we decidedly do not fuck it up with each passing minute. Tackles are made well outside the box, we’re dinking balls across their box and almost connecting. James hits one into the bar so hard that it bounces back about 20 meters. Ben Davies is behaving. Lockyer is having the game of his life – having made seven successful tackles in the first hour. Which sounds like fuck all, but really isn’t. The man is omnipresent. Henriksen and Elyounoussi look like flies trying to get out of a window: stuck.
And then Lockyer intercepts with a slide, Roberts gets to it and smacks it down to Morrell who glides beyond Normann like he’s no-man. Steps back inside near the halfway line, passes out to Ramsey who heads toward the wing, criss-crossing Bale in his path. Bale, Moore, Wilson, and James are all heading toward the box. The Norwegians are scrambling back. Ramsey crosses it, Moore on the edge of the box with a chest down, squares it to Wilson. It hits the post. Bale! The other post. James on his knees, tucks the ball in. 2 - 0.
Now, I am sober. There are eleven minutes left and we are in all probability about to hit another semi final. Giggs brings on Ampadu, Williams, and Levitt, the three forwards (Moore, Bale, James) go off. Wilson assumes number 9. The formation is 5-4-1. The Bws Cymraeg is being parked. Haaland is visibly red, partly through running from one box to the other hoping to intervene in the break, and partly because he’s out of ideas. He’s had a rare unperfect game.
The rest of this match is a blur of great Norwegian possession, just with very few gaps to utilise. It is strange sitting back and seeing Wales look like the composed team, receiving minimal threat, and having a plethora of talent to use. My nerves have been erratic from the start, partly because I think we undersell ourselves and decide to be inferior throughout these games, as though it is luck. But, really, we’re on the way to another semi final. And actually, I think we deserve it. We won 2-0, after all.
I see on the highlights Bale’s goal was a freekick, Haaland fouled him. I do not file the report for the paper.